The Edge Effect:
A Metaphor for Interdisciplinary Work
by James H. Mathewson, San Diego State University
The "edge effect" is a familiar phenomenon to ecologists and offers a
useful analogy for thinking about traversing boundaries between academic
disciplines. The edges in this case are the narrow zones of overlap
between two differing ecosystems. In these zones, or "ecotones," the
species diversity is high due to the periodic visits of organisms adapted to
one or the other of the larger systems plus a few organisms found almost
exclusively in the ecotone. Species that are well adapted to the ecotone
can take advantage of the resources of both adjacent systems as well as
the flows of organisms, energy and materials across the edge. Birds
living along the fringes of forests or the edge of the sea are good
I will avoid pushing the parallels; over-extension is one of the pitfalls
of analogy. You can elaborate the idea from your own experience. The
point here is that academics are well adapted for survival and success
in their disciplines, but are uneasy when making excursions outside their
normal habitats and sources of sustenance. It is in our own
characteristic attitudes and working habits that we must look for answers
to the questions:
One of the limiting attitudes is that of a hierarchy of esteem or "pecking
order." Mathematicians are accustomed to being given priority status,
followed by physicists, and so forth. To the practitioner in the
physical, earth or life sciences, the edge of mathematics has often seemed
like a barrier rather than a transition. Standards are a vital goal, not
a defining condition. We should never equate standards with depth or
breadth of "coverage." Preoccupation with the credibility of the
discipline literally marginalizes "outsiders," including students.
Students don't yet have disciplinary commitments in secondary school. In
college most of them are in so-called service courses. The classroom
manifestation of a discipline should be an inviting gateway into a field.
In looking for models of effective integrated curricular collaboration,
I think we should seek out the professionals who are comfortable crossing
disciplinary boundaries and find out what works for them.
- "Might discipline-based standards inhibit interdisciplinary
cooperation by setting a high self-contained set of expectations that
leaves little room for digressions?"
- "Can rigorous academic standards be achieved through integrated
curricula? Or do they, perhaps, evolve from fundamentally different views
of education -- one to strengthen disciplines, the other to diminish their
James H. Mathewson is a Research Associate at the Center for Research in
Mathematics and Science Education at San Diego State University.
He holds degrees in both biology and mathematics, and can be
reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To add your voice to this discussion, e-mail comments, letters, and op-ed
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Last Update: June 17, 1997